It has been only two weeks since Elon Musk completed his $44 billion takeover of Twitter, and barely a day has gone by without controversy. Mass layoffs, botched rollouts, and Musk’s own chaotic and conspiratorial tweeting have encouraged some users to preemptively jump ship to Mastodon, an open-source (and seemingly complicated) alternative—or to nowhere at all.
History tells us that social media platforms rise and fall. For every Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, there was MySpace, Friendster, and Vine (which, coincidentally, Musk is reportedly interested in resurrecting from the dead). But Twitter is not like the other platforms.
Twitter has been instrumental in the global rise of social justice movements and the widespread dissemination of news and information many otherwise would not have accessed. Twitter has fostered connections between millions of people, elevating countless, previously lesser-known thinkers, organizers, advocates, artists, and journalists, and made way for solidarity across geographic and imagined borders. Twitter is how the world saw and was connected to the Arab Spring, the Nigerian End SARS movement against police abuses, the Ferguson protests, the invasion of Ukraine, and so many more world events, in real time. Twitter is how we’ve drawn international attention to police brutality in America and the wrongful murders of so many innocent Black people.
Twitter has become the primary way elected officials communicate directly to the public. More importantly, it’s how we can communicate directly with them—it’s how we bring them to the proverbial town square. Twitter is what allows us to respond and push back against what we disapprove of in real time; whether it is seeking retribution against a white woman who lied on a Black bird watcher, or bullying Paramount Pictures into redesigning Sonic into a hedgehog we could all be proud of.
I started seriously using Twitter when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. I remember the first day of the lockdown in March of 2020 because they closed the courts—and they never close the courts in New York City. That’s when I knew it was real. I rode the subway home feeling the silent panic and fear of what was to come as I tried to process what was happening. But, as a public defender, I knew I was fortunate in that I wasn’t feeling those things from the inside of a crowded cell at Rikers, where people are stacked on top of one another, unable to socially distance, and getting ill and dying at alarming rates. But my clients were—and then-Governor Andrew Cuomo was working overtime to ensure not only that they never escaped but that more people would join them. Twitter became an avenue to fight Cuomo’s effort to roll back bail reform, which left thousands of poor Black and brown people trapped in the jail complex as the virus raged on, and to continue the fight to close Rikers.
A few months later, in May, the entire world listened and watched for eight minutes and 46 seconds as George Floyd cried out for his mother and pleaded with Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to let him breathe, as Chauvin continued to kneel on his neck until Floyd took his last breath. George Floyd’s murder launched a summer of protests all over the country. The entire world followed along in real time as militarized police departments were sent out to disrupt protests across the country, as police and like-minded agitators drove into crowds of protestors, as elected officials announced curfews to thwart protests, as police created barricades at the protests to make mass arrests. As the world stayed locked down, we used Twitter to organize and communicate about where to find aid and legal representation.
Months later, despite New York City’s passage of the “Say Their Name” reform package, which promised that police officers wouldn’t restrain people like Chauvin did George Floyd, four NYPD officers sat on top of Carlyle Arnold in Queens while he lay totally still. One officer was kneeling firmly on Carlyle’s neck as the onlookers screamed in horror, “Get your knee off his neck! Get your knee off his neck!” to no avail. Carlyle survived, but was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for riding the ATV, which is how I met him. I arraigned him, and after he was released on his own recognizance, he sent me the video and I tweeted it to the world. Within hours of posting the video, numerous news and media outlets had contacted Carlyle and I to tell his story. We called for the Queens district attorney to drop the charges against Carlyle and to, in turn, charge the officers involved. The Queens DA declined to charge the officer but dismissed the charges against Carlyle. Not because it was the right thing to do or because they wouldn’t have been all too happy to saddle Carlyle with a criminal conviction for riding an ATV at a friend’s vigil. They dropped the charges because we fought them in the court of public opinion and not dropping the charges would’ve made them look bad.
I was able to tell Carlyle’s story on Twitter. Just like Twitter has allowed me to share with millions of people the human rights crisis at Rikers and the deaths of countless victims of police brutality, to debunk copaganda about bail reform and progressive initiatives, to introduce countless people to abolition, and to lend support to organizers and movements who need it.
Twitter is the primary way most millennials and Gen-Zers get or share news. Even the people who think they don’t get their news from Twitter, do. I’ve appeared on numerous news programs, podcasts, and radio shows as a political commentator and whenever I’m provided with the topics we’ll be discussing, I receive links to tweets and conversations started on Twitter by people who have no access to these media spaces, wouldn’t typically be able to influence them, and often aren’t even made aware that their tweet is the reason some journalist is talking about something. Twitter is a place where unlikely voices can be propelled to the main stage in spite of the gatekeeping role played by mainstream America media. Twitter is a place where celebrities, elected officials, and people who generally feel unreachable and untouchable can be bullied into submission by the masses—which is a good thing.
All of this is precisely why Elon Musk, his fandom, and the powers that be, wished to seize it, and to now use and manipulate it to their advantage. But that should neither surprise nor deter us. The fight for justice and equality has far tougher obstacles than existing in the same Internet space as the bigots we already exist and must contend with in real life. There is nothing fundamentally destabilizing about a billionaire buying one social media app when most of the others are also owned by, if not billionaires, other wealthy white men. The struggles our communities face, the tragedies we’re trying to highlight, and the rights we’re fighting for, far outweigh the discomfort of having our Twitter space feeling a little more like the white billionaire-owned structures we’ve always been fighting against in society at large.
Justice isn’t freely given. It’s demanded by the people after light is shed on the truth and the powers that be are forced to respond. That’s part of what makes all social media such an integral part of our lives. Despite the intentions of its new owner, Twitter is one of our most effective tools for challenging the status quo and powerful people and institutions. Twitter has proven this type of vehicle for social movements is effective–and if its downfall is truly inevitable and the app does burn, we should form something even better in its wake. But for now, I’m not leaving. Neither should you.